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Carter Opens 5-Day Cuba Visit, Meets With Leading Dissidents

By Mark Fineman
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- Havana

Former President Carter threw himself into the ideological divide of U.S-Cuban relations Monday, meeting over breakfast with the communist-run island’s two leading dissidents, and then delivering a sharp broadside to the Bush administration over bioterror allegations.

Opening a five-day visit that marks the first time a current or former U.S. president has set foot in Cuba since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, Carter challenged conservatives in the U.S. government to prove charges that Cuba has developed biological weapons technology and shared it with renegade states such as Iran.

Carter even suggested at a forum that included Castro that Bush administration officials misled either him or the American people about those allegations.

“In preparation for this unprecedented visit, I requested, and we all received, intense briefings from the State Department, the intelligence agencies of my country and high officials in the White House ... for them to share with us any concerns that my government had about possible terrorist activities that were supported by Cuba,” Carter said after more than two hours of briefings by Cuban scientists at the country’s premier biotechnology research center.

“There were absolutely no such allegations made or questions raised. I asked them specifically on more than one occasion, ‘Is there any evidence that Cuba has been involved in sharing any information to any other country on Earth that could be used for terrorist purposes? And the answer from our experts on intelligence was, ‘No.’ ”

“Maybe not coincidentally,” Carter added, just a few days before he and his delegation landed in Havana on Sunday, Bush’s undersecretary of state for arms control delivered a well-publicized speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and asserted, “The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort.

“Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states,” said the official, John R. Bolton.

The bioterrorism charge -- and Carter’s entire visit -- have become the latest battlefields in the deeply polarized and emotional debate about altering America’s 42-year-old policy of isolating Cuba.

The anti-Castro Cuban lobby in South Florida and in Congress have praised Bolton and condemned Carter for a visit they fear could help legitimize the Cuban leader. And the Heritage Foundation’s Latin America specialist, Stephen Johnson, accused Carter of being “the perfect foil” for a move in Congress to ease America’s economic embargo of the Caribbean island.